Into Air That Was Only Slightly Thin

If you had said to me a couple of weeks ago, “Chiara, how about we go on a two day hike over MLK weekend?” I probably would have said okay. If you had told me it would involve the lovely Olympic National Forest, I would have nodded enthusiastically. If you’d reminded me that this hike would be the inaugural journey for my brand new pack that I got for Christmas from my boyfriend, I would have readily assented. If you’d told me that we were going to go with some dear friends, S and A, I would have smiled in anticipation. If you’d told me that this trip would involve an unexpected vertical tromp through knee-, waist-, and hip-deep snow, and that I would be wearing my trail runners instead of, perhaps, my infinitely more sensible hiking boots, and that furthermore this tromp would involve a steep cliff face in the dark AND many stream crossings, and that also I would temporarily misplace my favorite fuzzy pants, then I would have politely have invited you to keep dreaming, and I would have reminisced about my lovely trip to Mt. Rainier I took in September. And that would have been that. Is my use of the subjective here (or is it the subjunctive? I can never remember) misleading you? Because in fact all of the above occurrences did in fact occur last week.

I think if I were writing this entry on Monday instead of today, I’d be a little more melodramatic about it. During the trip itself I was rather calm about it…”it” being that I was underprepared, but not death-defyingly so, for an overnight hike that ended up including snow when I didn’t think it would include snow. We started off on such a good note, with getting on the ferry early, and finding a coffee place in Port Angeles that had soy milk, and then with S getting a new wonder jacket and Carl getting a fuzzy jacket that makes him look like Cookie Monster (as well as earning him that nickname during the weekend). We were on the trail on time and it was a beautiful day. A and I, it turned out, had both received packs from our significant others for Christmas, and so we were happy to futz around with them to some extent and to pull on the straps and fill the pockets with things and to adjust the hip belts just so. We all laughed at each others’ long underwear. Carl and S had the kind of gear-freak conversations that only gear freaks can have. Those two flirted all day, let me just tell you. “So, how much orienteering have you done?” “This one time my roommate got pneumonia and we had to get him rescued!” “I used to carry a fifty pound pack!” “I love your boots!” “Is that a halogen headlamp you have there?” We walked and chatted and ate dried fruit and peanuts, talking about various trips we’d been on. The way got a little steeper, but nothing too terrible. I’m a whiny baby and even I just strolled right along. We passed the campground we planned to stay at the second night. We crossed a stream and got our feet a little wet. It was misty and gorgeous and the trees were tall and green, as gorgeous a Northwest winter as you could wish for.

It got steeper and steeper and there were some patches of snow. 2.8 miles to the lake! Great! No problem! We passed a SUPREMELY goofy looking couple on the way down. “The snow is deeper up there,” they said. They were wearing jeans and sneakers. “We had to turn back.” The guy of this couple had the weirdest glasses I have ever seen; they took up most of his face, and were bright white. It was hard not to stare. As they went on down, someone asked if we were prepared to camp on snow or if we should just turn around. It was getting kind of late and we had about two miles to go. “Let’s just go on,” we all said…I mean, I’m guessing we said that, because we did go on, and on we went as it got darker. Camp on snow, no big deal. Done it before. We’re almost there!

Uh, what?

It finally did get dark and we finally realized that the two miles ahead of us were going to go much more slowly than the last four or five. We headed steadily upward and had to kick steps into this gross snow that had suddenly covered the trail. It was sort of crusty and old, and I know it has a name, but all I called it was “sucky.” My shoes weren’t strong enough to kick steps so I had to go after S and Carl. About every fourth step they’d sink in to their knees. About every other step I was sinking in up to my knees. A was catching a lot too, at one point going in up to her hips. We had to cross a stream on some snow covered logs, and we couldn’t quite tell where the log ended, and so there was some slipping and falling there too. A’s pants were completely soaked. We just kept going up, checking S’s altimeter every once and again, checking the map. Going up. Going up.

Now, you are going to laugh when I tell you that it was here that I really understood what they’re talking about when they tell you to live in the moment. Can you believe I got all Zenned out in this situation? I did. At one point I just thought, well, this is how it’s going to be from now on. I’m just going to lift my feet, one after the other, and occasionally I’ll fall down. That’s just what I do. I’m just going to climb and climb and climb, one foot after the other. I guess I was focused. I guess I was working hard, some part of me, not to be scared, because it was a little scary. It’s just surprising to me that I wasn’t freaking out emotionally at this point. This is possibly because I wasn’t alone with Carl and so didn’t feel the same license to freak out I might ordinarily, but I also think it’s because of this weird, but rather pleasant, space I got into. Snow. Dark. Up. Up. Up. Not too cold. One foot, the other foot.

Well, we finally got to the lake and found somewhere where we could camp, and then came the debacle of setting up the tents and cooking and eating and getting into the sleeping bags. I had to get up and pee twice during the night, which is surely unfair. I had to wake Carl up and have him reinflate my stupid Thermarest, which crapped out and refrigerated me quite nicely for several hours. The payback for all this was that it was a full moon and every time I went outside it was bright and warm and amazing.

Morning came and we were sore and cold and had to repack. We decided to go home early because we were only going to camp back down at the hot springs, which was only two miles from the car, and why not just go home? We felt we deserved our beds. It was then I remembered that as much as I admire and respect My Friend Anna for hiking a great portion of the PCT last year, I will probably never emulate her adventuresomeness in that regard, because after one peasly night outside I was ready for HOME. We packed up and minced on back down the mountain, newly freaked out at how steep the cliffside along which we’d minced the night before. We crossed a lot of streams and cursed the sucky snow at every turn. We congratulated ourselves for making it up the mountain, and talked about why we’d decided to press on after we met the weird eyeglasses couple who said it was super snowy. Hubris? Summit fever? Plain stupidity? Some benign combination thereof? We walked and walked and walked, thinking about how much we were going to deserve the hot springs. We stopped to take a detour to see a waterfall, and I stayed behind with the packs. They found me asleep curled up by a tree.

The hot springs were pretty good, and we stayed there for a while. We met a pair of girls who’d been traveling around for several months and talked to them about where they’d been and what they’d done, and and about where we’d been and what we’d done. They were reading aloud from a philosophy textbook, and drinking port wine out of the bottle, and I thought that they were like characters in a story, young girls wild and free and traveling, all tattooed and slightly drunk and not sure where they’d be that night. They asked us if we knew of “a pool hall or something” in Port Angeles, and we had to confess our ignorance. Later I thought that they were probably not as nearly bohemian as I thought…for one thing, they were certainly richer than they were putting on, because I saw the type of bras they’d left hanging by the side of the hot springs and I know that tatoos are expensive, as is art school. But it didn’t matter because those are different types of characters in a story and as I imagined it later, walking down to the trailhead, it was a pretty interesting one. It involved their being madly, but hopelessly, in love. And a lot of sex. Possibly a rich aunt who died and left one of them an inheritance.

S had a blood bruise under his toenail (the result of having kicked eighty three million steps in the snow) and so he drilled through the nail with a needle and drained the blood, a process which I found endlessly fascinating, I have to admit. He did it with a completely straight face, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. When he was ready, we packed up again and set on down the trail, and I thought I was going to have to give Carl my pack to wear on his front because my knees and ankles hurt so badly. I limped down the road (it was getting dark again) and after half a mile or so I felt better and could walk with something approaching a regular gait. It got dark quick, and this time it was kind of spooky, walking down a tree lined road. The moon was still full but it was hard to see it through the trees.

And we got to the cars and drove to Port Angeles and had dinner and then drove to the ferry and then got on the ferry and then drove back to our house and then were very good and put the tent and the sleeping bags out to dry and I was pretty sure I’d sprained an ankle, which I turned out not to have done. And I didn’t freak out emotionally about being way outside my expertise and “comfort zone” until the next day, when I did so with a vengeance, I’m embarassed to report. And that’s the end of the story! Ta da! No one died!

I don’t know how to end this, because I feel like I should have some sort of insight from the weekend. Something about being with good friends and about trusting your partner (who happens to be a very good hiker and has a lot of wilderness first aid experience…in short, the exact type of person you want to go hiking with) to help you out of a scary place. Something about testing a couple of tiny boundaries, or maybe something about how I like my new pack very much. I waited too long to write about it, I think (I was busy, okay?), and now all I have left is the memory of that weird, but pleasant, focused moment in the snow and the dark.

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